postcard #30.vinegar

Reading Charles Dickens’ Uncommercial Traveller, July 2016

My summer reading this year included Charles Dickens’ The Uncommercial Traveller (published in a new OUP edition in 2015), a collection of sketches from walks, visits and journeys he made around London and elsewhere. These were originally published in his All Year Round journal during the 1860s. Of note here is a piece entitled ‘The Italian Prisoner’. Obviously, the themes of crime, punishment, imprisonment, poverty, workhouses, convict labour, penal settlements and colonialism feature heavily in Dickens’ novels and other writing [influenced in part by his family’s stay in Marshalsea prison in 1824 due to his father’s debts] and it might be interesting to map out the different types of carceral spaces composed of the official and unofficial prisons of his characters and the connections and paths between such spaces as both plot function and social commentary.

For Dickens it is usually the wrong people who are locked up with imprisonment often being presented as too good for the most villainous of his characters who invariably meet far stickier ends. His navigation around the emerging Victorian disciplinary system – prison, factory, school – bears the traces of an older spectacle of punishment embodied in his penchant for melodramatic redemptive death scenes.

In his Amerian Notes (1842), Dickens describes his visit to the Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia, condemning in particular its use of solitary confinement:

‘Over the head and face of every prisoner who comes into this melancholy house, a black hood is drawn; and in this dark shroud, an emblem of the curtain dropped between him and the living world, he is led to the cell from which he never again comes forth, until his whole term of imprisonment has expired. He never hears of wife and children; home or friends; the life or death of any single creature. He sees the prison-officers, but with that exception he never looks upon a human countenance, or hears a human voice. He is a man buried alive; to be dug out in the slow round of years; and in the mean time dead to everything but torturing anxieties and horrible despair.’ (for a longer excerpt visit:

His account here is oft-cited both by those opposing the continued use of solitary confinement in U.S. prisons and penitentiaries today and those writing on Eastern State Penitentiary in its current incarnation as penal museum and tour (see for example, Michael Welch, Escape to Prison, 2015). In its time, Eastern State Penitentiary was heralded for its use of radial design and other forms of architectural and disciplinary innovation including solitary over and against the overcrowded, disease-ridden prison it was built to replace. As such Dickens’ critique is held up as a warning against contemporary claims that technological innovation makes for better prisons.

To reference Dickens within the context of the prison as museum is to acknowledge how current forms of penal tourism are located within a longer history of public fascination with the interiors of prisons. Before defunct prisons were opened to the public as museums, the tour of the working prison or penal colony was a staple experience for many 19th and early 20th century travel writers. For example, French reporter Albert Londres damning accounts of the bagne in French Guiana are often considered as playing a key role in the emergence of investigative journalism and for bringing about the public pressure which ultimately led to the closure of the settlements. (See for example, Danielle Donet-Vincent, La fin du bagne, Rennes, Éditions Ouest France, 1992)

Such writing should be contextualised within a world or moment in which incarceration together with new prison design appeared a welcome, progressive response to capital and corporal punishment and over-crowded, unhygienic medieval jails. Likewise, our own visits to the defunct prisons and penal settlements of the 19th and early 20th centuries also require greater contextualisation which is often overlooked or downplayed by those writing on penal tourism. While Dickens own social commentary was ultimately conservative and stopped short of advocating radical social change, there is a palpable sense of despair in his writing on Eastern State Penitentiary – a recognition that architectural advance does not constitute progress or humanity. Are our own visits to prison museums, exhibitions or ruins underpinned by a sense of optimism or despair about the future of incarceration?


The story of ‘The Italian Prisoner’ is of interest as a strange, deferred form of penal tourism which is quite different to other accounts of prison found in Dickens. Dickens pays a visit to a former prisoner, Giovanni Carlavero, who had been locked up for alleged involvement in the uprisings in Italy during the period. He has been ‘commissioned’ to do so by an anonymous friend who, it turns out, had secured the prisoner’s release at great expense and effort. Carlavero now owns a small vineyard and on making Dickens’ acquaintance insists he carry a bottle of the first wine produced back to his benefactor.

The second part of the story involves the tale of the bottle as it travels across Europe.

img_3737‘And now, what disquiet of mind this dearly-beloved and highly-treasured Bottle began to cost me, no man knows. It was my precious charge through a long tour, and, for hundreds of miles, I never had it off my mind by day or by night. Over bad roads – and they were many – I clung to it with affectionate desperation. Up mountains, I looked in at it and saw it helplessly tilting over on its back, with terror. At innumerable inn doors when the weather was bad, I was obliged to be put into my vehicle before the Bottle could be got in, and was obliged to have the Bottle lifted out before human aid could come near me.’ (Charles Dickens, The Uncommercial Traveller, p.174)

The bottle which should be a symbol of freedom and gratitude becomes, under Dickens’ watch, souvenir turned fetish-object. Like most souvenirs, its value lies not in its quality and it is not designed to travel particularly well. As Dickens remarks on this note:

‘The wine was mere vinegar when I set it down before the generous Englishman – probably it had been something like vinegar when I took it up from Giovanni Carlavero – but not a drop of it was spilled or gone.’ (p.176)

Nevertheless, it is through his transportation of the bottle that Dickens is able to participate in the story of Carlavero’s imprisonment and release despite his claims at the start of his account that ‘the character I myself sustained was so very subordinate, that I may relate its story without any fear of being suspected of self-display.’ (p.168) The customs dodging and extra-legal negotiations Dickens has to go through in order to ensure the wine is not opened or confiscated en-route imbue the wine with an aura of criminal activity, an image of smuggled contraband befitting of a prison souvenir whilst Carlavero’s innocence is maintained to the last.

postcard #15. shopping

CAPIC Showroom, Tokyo, July 2015

The anxiety-inducing possibility that there is nothing left to buy

Prisons in Japan have their own stores attached wimg_3733here it is possible to buy products made by the inmates. These are run by CAPIC (Correctional Association Prison Industry Cooperation) which also has a showroom in the Nakano suburb of Tokyo. A wide range of other items – shoes, clothes, furniture, notepads, udon noodles – can also be purchased. All the objects available to purchase in the showroom, woodwork, notepads, shoes lend themselves in one way or another to crude humour about prison life not least of all the bar of soap in its evocation of prison rape and by-product of the Nazi concentration camps.



Unlike U.S. prisons where work is presented as a privilege to an increasingly warehoused, unwanted labour force, in Japan it is compulsory, essential to an ideology of rehabilitation based on individual discipline and productivity. Objects produced through prison labour in the U.S. are often distributed and sold in such a way as to conceal the modes of production involved due to public hostility towards prison labour. Such hostility manifests from both the right and the left. From one political perspective prison labour takes jobs from law-abiding citizens by undercutting wages, from another, prison labour is exempt from minimum wages, union regulation and other legal regulations affecting places of work and thus constitutes a form of exploitation. On a visit to Attica in 2012, I was told by a Correctional Officer that the large, metal cabinets made in the prison workshop were assembled elsewhere, effectively concealing the supply chain in order to avoid problems with the unionized institutions including universities which tended to purchase them. In Japan, however, the products of contemporary prison labour are openly flaunted and sold as edgy consumerism and original souvenirs. For example, CNN Travel’s blog post on the store bears the title ‘Japanese crafts at criminal prices’ pitching the prison-made goods against mass-produced merchandise imported from China. Such a narrative of authentic Japanese merchandise is interesting given the use of prison-labour in Japan (and the U.S.) in building part of the country’s infrastructure. Unlike in the U.S. where clear links are made between slavery and the chain gang, the contribution of prison labour to the building of Japan and its colonial project in Hokkaido is openly affirmed rather than glossed over.

img_3732 Both narratives of warehousing and rehabilitative work involve a form of social cleansing embodied in the bar of inmate-made soap – advertised as the Nakano store’s ‘bestselling’ item. If such cleansing seems to be directed at the invisible inmates caught up in what Angela Davis and others have called the ‘prison industrial complex’, the purchase of a bar of soap or, indeed, the patronage of any material or cultural object produced by or through the labour and suffering of those incarcerated, surely represents a consciously planned cleansing of public conscience. The CNN blog reassures its right-leaning Western readers that they need not fear profits from sales going directly to criminals, emphasizing that a portion of the profits are given to victim support groups. The systematic implementation of prison labour programmes across Japan’s prisons depends not on an equivalent systematic recognition of the need to provide training and rehabilitation to those incarcerated or indeed an acknowledgment of the wider socio-economic structures underpinning much criminal activity. Rather, it is predicated on the idea of individual debts to be paid off by productive labour combined with the personal charity of individual purchasing power.


Moreover, passive complicity with the carceral becomes active consumerism at the same time as the contemporary, working prison is rendered museum via its production, display and sale of collectible objects. The bar of soap is a fetish which ironically acquires its value not from its ability to clean or even from its claimed role in the rehabilitation of those locked-up but precisely because it has been made a commodity by those locked-up. The bar of soap is imbued with the aura of the criminal body and his or her fulfilled potential for transgression.

According to an article in The Japan Times, in 2003 a furniture company was exposed for selling products featuring a forged version of the ‘CAPIC’ made-in-prison logo. Use of the forged seals had apparently been adopted to boost sales. Customers believed that the relatively low prices of CAPIC-produced furniture indicated higher quality materials offset against low labour costs. Most inmates are sentenced to ‘imprisonment with labour’ meaning that work in prison is indissociable from punishment and rehabilitation. Interestingly, the article reported that the punishment for the owner of the furniture company was a ban from prison trade fairs rather than a criminal sentence. Such a ban together with the owner’s confession to ‘being tempted’ by the success of the CAPIC-made products maintains the aura around the products and their mode of production.

Postcard #35. Riots

High Pavement Police Station, Nottingham, September 2016


Yesterday I took a free tour of Nottingham’s Old County Police Station as part of the September Heritage Open Days. The Station is located on High Pavement in Nottingham next to the Shire Hall which now houses the Galleries of Justice. The station closed in 1987 but up until then had operated as police station and holding cells for all of Nottinghamshire. It was interesting to visit the Edwardian police station since its replacement Nottingham Central Police station on North Church Street closed earlier this year with its operation moving to Maid Marian Way.


Back in the day it was possible to be held at the High Pavement station pending trial at Shire Hall and, if you were particularly unlikely, you could end up executed on the same site. Thinking about the carceral geographies of different cities – it is interesting to see different points of intensity which later become fragmented before being reinstated as a form of penal archaeology or heritage. The tour guide also told us that the pub across the road from the station (he didn’t say which one so I will need to explore that myself) used to provide meals to those being held there at a cost to those detained. Although the phenomenon of prison towns in which an entire urban community works in the service of the prison industry or industrial complex seems relatively recent and largely limited to small town America – there are interesting and important trajectories which can be mapped out in all cities between historical and contemporary forms of incarceration and the impact/role these play within the wider community, commerce, education and infrastructure.

The police station as it is preserved was built in 1905. It closed as the holding cells it offered (3 for men, 1 for women) weren’t up to spec. For example, apart from the women’s cell there were no toilets in the cells. During the riots and strikes of the 1970s and 1980s in Nottingham, the cells weren’t adequate to house all those arrested en masse.

In its current role as annex to the main Galleries of Justice, the station could be considered as a mini-museum for crime prevention posters of the 1980s and (posthumously added) 1990s. Thimg_0453ese are mainly about car crime and it is interesting to juxtapose some of the images (notably the 1992 campaign featuring the baying hyena looking to break into your car) with those now seen around Nottingham’s town centre, not least the infantilizing warnings against fuelling drug and alcohol abuse amongst Nottingham’s homeless population. These seem to present quite a different image aimed at the engaged, caring citizen looking for ways to ‘help’ those less fortunate than themselves – one predicated on the mauvais foi of Cameron’s ‘big society’ rather than the shadowy, animal-like criminal of Thatcher’s ‘no society’.


The station has undergone some minor modifications since it closed in 1987. Apart from one room closed to visitors, the graffiti in the cells has been painted over although it was still possible to see the odd name or comment carved into the brick and woodwork. Despite its potential value as visual/physical documentation of the experience of those being held in the cells, the decision perhaps reflect a desire to sanitise the space for the school groups visiting. While there is no doubt a more nuanced narrative on graffiti, tagging and various forms of street art being presented to adolescents now than a purely zero tolerance, anti-vandal discourse, the absence of graffiti here seems to erase some potential for alternative narratives of the cell spaces. Perhaps this has more to do with the banality of most graffiti which risk affirming the pointlessness of prison more than anything.


The exercise yard has been covered over and now provides a display of the UK history of policing. Interestingly, this avoids an overly romantic presentation of the police despite certain visitors attempting to redress this with their own anecdotes.The ongoing links between police and military is made quite strongly and story of the evolution of their ‘weapons’ from sword to truncheon reminds us of the ever-present police brutality.

The shadowy, sinister figure of the police

The visit was framed by storyboards in different cells narrating different protests and riots which had seen individuals and groups end up in there. This included the story of a suffragette, who had plotted to blow up the king on a visit to Nottingham, the miners strike of the 1980s and the riots of summer 2011. This is not the only place where the history of Nottingham has been defined as one of protest and riot – an exhibition was held in 2013-2014 at Nottingham Castle on the riots of 1831. Focusing on questions around social struggle and the right to protest is an interesting technique for recounting the story of incarceration more generally and one which focuses less on crime as inherently bad and more on the reasons why people might commit certain acts. Nevertheless, I found there was something deeply alienating about seeing images from the 2011 riots and the story of Mark Duggan turned into a storyboard for school visits. I wonder whether such a decontextualisation risks also depoliticizing recent events, turning them into moments in a longer, continuous and homogeneous narrative of riots consigned to a history from which younger visitors can (or are encouraged to) dissociate themselves.